Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Come out and play in New Orleans...?

This week marks the fourth anniversary since the great deluge reduced New Orleans from the diadem of the Gulf to the shame of a nation. Katrina did not only destroy New Orleans and especially the Ninth Ward, it did far more. It exposed the recesses of this country that we’d rather hide; the dark corners we like to forget do exist. I still remember the day the levees broke. From my apartment in Denver, I watched as news coverage showed the water levels rising until the entire Ninth Ward and most of the city was under several feet of water.

My first thoughts went to the White House. Where was the President? In days following the incidence, I had to debate staunch Bush supporters who told me it was in the best interest of the nation that the President did not come on the scene immediately. There would be too much at stake if he did. There was too much at stake for George W. Bush to visit and stand in solidarity with the people of New Orleans, but there wasn’t much at stake for the hundreds of New Orleanians who were crouched in attics, on rooftops and in the Super Dome.

In the final weeks of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina a Category 5 storm battered the Gulf Coast of the United States. The devastation that followed led several to conclude that the Hurricane was the worse natural disaster that had ever occurred in the United States. The tragedy was not in the hurricane that destroyed millions of homes and shattered many lives, the tragedy was in the response and recovery that followed in the aftermath. Why were the residents of the city not evacuated quickly or at all and why was the response poorly executed?

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss the dismal response with the excuse that it was an incidence out of the ordinary. Modern day Americans had never witnessed such a bizarre occurrence. Fires, bombings, shootings, but not hurricanes. Certainly not a disaster in a poor city. What if the Upper East Side in New York City got flooded? Or maybe Georgetown? Would the response have been any different? There are still many questions swirling about why New Orleaneans were left to die. Was it because the majority of the victims were poor blacks? Did authorities assume that poor blacks were used to hardship and would know what to do?

Obviously, the aftermath and the death toll showed that poor black Americans in the city of New Orleans did not know what to do. Although footage from the deluge would show an America that in many ways resembled Haiti more that the United States, the victims were every inch as American as residents of San Diego. For one thing, this was a case in point of underdevelopment in a developed country. There was no difference between New Orleans and developing countries mired in squalor, save for running water and electricity. The residents of New Orleans were poor, mostly uneducated, riddled with terminal and long term debilitating and chronic illnesses, they battled sexually transmitted diseases, they confronted drug and alcohol abuse on a level that was unprecedented in most parts of the country.

How did New Orleans get to become the armpit of the United States? How did neglect and social vices find a haven in the city of New Orleans? How did New Orleanians fall through the cracks? The history of the city will point to the present but it does not sufficiently explain the "how" or answer the "why."

The response has been criticized. FEMA has been scorned. Michael Brown has stepped down but the questions still echo. Questions of abandonment, assisted suicide at Memorial Medical Center, those trailers, the thousands of FEMA dollars that were doled out; some of the monies going to imposters who did not suffer any loss or damage. Then we wonder why there’s a recession. Were the Levees bombed to save Uptown, does George Bush not care about black people like Kanye West suggested, was the Hurricane an act of a just God, punishing a sinful city?

While these questions go unanswered or only partially so, Katrina certainly was a wakeup call to the fact that America is far from the promise of liberty and justice for all. The Hurricane showed that there’s a lot wrong with this country than corrupt politicians and banks. New Orleans is a development crisis. America’s dirty little secret. Sure the Hurricane unwittingly was a blessing. Go ask Anderson Cooper or some journalists at the Times-Picayune or Mayor Nagin, whose fortunes were set by the misfortunes of others, although unintentionally.

The city is still in ruins, partially rebuilt. The New Orleanians are in other cities, some vowing never to return. For most there’s not much to come back to. But that little city that sits below sea level must be rebuilt, must be preserved. If there’s one lesson to be learned from all this, it’s that New Orleanians are Americans too, although some Americans are more equal than others.

But, New Orleans is America, in a very un-American way. There is a quality to the city that is idyllic and quaint. New Orleans is not your average Chicago or your Portland. New Orleans is beignets, costumes and parades, crawfish and andouille. New Orleans is Canal Street, and Tulane. New Orleans is beads, and roux. New Orleans is not your average city. Perhaps New Orleans is your chocolate city or New Orleans is dirty politicking. But New Orleans is not New York. New Orleans is big band and second line; New Orleans is parasols and voodoo. New Orleans is…But New Orleans will never be the same again.

Photographs by Bruce Weber for W Magazine

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